“I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
What does the landscape of endemic violence look like? The influx of viral videos and images witnessing violence against people of color increasingly allow far-spread audiences access to identical views. Despite this shared media terrain, interpretations of this violence conflict and reactions are deeply polarized. Enter into any conversation – or comment section – and it becomes clear that moments of unambiguous footage hold little weight against a human propensity to center our interpretations around our own personal expectations and experiences. Geographer D.W. Meinig states that “facts take on meaning only through association,” and that “any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.” The artists in Where We Land respond to the confluence of our interpretive nature and representations of disproportionate trauma by considering that a subject with fluid associations – landscape – might paradoxically hold entry points to finding justice and common ground.
“Land” has multiple meanings; a place or plot of earth, the impact of a fall, or the outcome of an action or circumstance. Where We Land asks viewers to imagine multiple possibilities in single scenes. Zora Murff, Jordan Weber, and Lachell Workman are all keen observers of the roles space and environment play in forming cultural attitudes and perceptions of trust, complicity, permission, imminent danger, and victimization. Instead of considering place as simply a “backdrop” site to violence, these artists recognize that landscape holds signifiers of the history, policy, and systemic marginalization that put communities of color at disproportionate risk. With focus on environmental and material details, and deliberately shifting meanings, the artists explore how we might utilize this “Rashomon Effect” – contradictory interpretations of the same event from multiple people – as a strategy for scrutinizing presumed narratives and increasing communication, understanding, and empathy between communities with very different lived experiences. As individuals are able to form and hold multiple versions of the same scene within their own minds, they increase their capacity to see full human complexity in viral victims.
Lachell Workman’s practice centers around how human narratives activate spaces. Her grandmother, part of a wave of migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial Northeast, settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, followed by much of her family. Bridgeport was once home to numerous factories and affordable housing; now this post-industrial city houses many abandoned structures and unoccupied spaces. In her photograph, Untitled 3, Family Book 1, Workman superimposes an image of a child from her family album over a current day photograph of an overgrown lot, the former site of Father Panik Village, New England’s first -- and most notorious -- housing project. Examining an intergenerational history, the artist questions what it means to live in close proximity to abandoned spaces, and how individuals and communities are marked by spatial emptiness. Thinking beyond literal vacancy, she considers instead the absence or presence of an active human narrative in a space. This question of narrative presence in inner-city spaces extends to her installation Dear Brother, which fuses site, body, and public memory. Workman reclaims the material of inner city landscape as a radical act of memorial that refuses invisibility and namelessness of the black body. T-shirts encased in asphalt hold frozen poses, those widely and disparately interpreted as gestures of either imminent threat or systemic vulnerability. The shirts left unnamed invite audiences to participate in constructing memorial, to say the names of victims of brutality.
Jordan Weber’s carefully orchestrated tableaux of personally and culturally significant objects, symbols and materials touch on the cyclical and reciprocal impact of environments upon their residents. The artist highlights stereotypical associations and the contradictory interpretations embedded in his selections; items like fieldturf, a Michael Jordan trading card, police cars, and wheel rims. In particular, Weber focuses on environmental degradation as a compounding factor of community oppression. As we watch performers in Weber’s installation Body Snatchers lift the back end of an old police car overgrown with flora, we start weighing the power of various forces. Which exerts more pressure: overt moments of systemic discrimination and social stereotyping, geographic displacement and segregation, the long term and overwhelming forces of environmental decay, or community organizing? Weber makes clear in his artistic practice that these questions are complicated and unanswered, the forces intertwined and messy. His practice lives both in and outside of gallery spaces, making site-specific work in neighborhoods, as well as bringing earth from historic sites of racial tension, trauma, and political significance into the gallery. As such, the artist forces recognition of the gap between actual environments and the lenses through which we examine them; the austere space of the gallery serves as a stand-in for all places of privileged commentary and remote policy-making.
While serving as a Tracker for a community-based supervisory program within Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Iowa, Zora Murff had a direct view into youths’ experience of the criminal justice system. In his photo series Corrections, Murff’s subjects shy away from the camera; their masked faces are a combination of necessary anonymity and artistic strategy. Denied access to his subject’s faces, we resort to finding contextual clues in surrounding space. We find plenty of cues of youth -- a school sports field, a dull town; logos and doodles, an ill-fitting suit jacket, a spare but messy bedroom. But we also notice the markers of the justice system; an ankle bracelet, an institutional visitation room, and the political weight of a hoodie. Returning to these photographs as portraits, what we see in this combination are children that are not confronting viewers with their circumstance, but shrinking away, branded with adult intentions that they may not have the maturity to possess. In a program that provides an alternative to incarceration, these youth can remain at home instead of an institution, however marked as though their greatest potential is not to grow, but to reoffend.
D. W. Meinig, "The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene," in D. W. Meinig, ed., The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York : Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Zora Murff (Lincoln, NE) holds a BA in Psychology from Iowa State University and studied photography at the University of Iowa, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is currently an MFA candidate. Murff’s work has been featured in The Guardian, The British Journal of Photography, VICE Magazine, and Wired Magazine’s Raw File, and exhibited at numerous venues including Filter Gallery in Chicago, The Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver, The University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Hite Art Institute in Louisville.
Jordan Weber (Des Moines, IA) attended Simpson College, Kirkwood College, and American University in Rome, Italy, and is an Artist Fellow and Project Grant recipient from the Iowa Arts Council. Weber’s exhibitions include the Des Moines Art Center, Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, Gallery 38 in Los Angeles, La Esquina Gallery in Kansas City, and The Space Gallery in Chicago. His work has been reviewed by The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, The Washington Times, and The Des Moines Register.
Lachell Workman (Bridgeport, CT) earned a BFA from The University of Connecticut and an MFA from SUNY at Purchase College. Workman was awarded residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Shakenden Project at Storm King Art Center, Ox-Bow, and the Lower East Side Printshop in New York. She has exhibited at Yale University’s Greene Gallery, Bronx Art Space, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, NY.
All photos by Dana Damewood.